GUSTINE - Seven weeks after their senior year abruptly ended, members of the Gustine High Class of 2020 returned to campus for the first time last Wednesday to pick up their graduation caps and gowns.

But caps and gowns were only part of the event, which staff transformed into a show of support for and celebration of the seniors, who have been denied traditional events ranging from prom and their class trip to an awards night and walk-out rally.

Students arrived to find signs and banners, with a number of teachers on hand to greet them (including some from earlier schools in the district).

As they made their way around the circle in front of the stately campus, students were presented a t-shirt and water bottle, as well as a We Love Our Seniors/Class of 2020 sign (purchased by the Gustine-Romero Teachers Association) before pulling up to the station where caps and gowns were dispensed.

As they left, students drove past a banner with their class photo and educators holding signs exhorting them to “Be the Difference.”

With seniors shorted on so many activities, said teacher Barbara Azevedo, class advisor and one of the event organizers, the goal was to make the distribution a special event.

Social distancing was practiced throughout, she noted.

“It was so nice to see the kids,” Azevedo explained. “I think they were really surprised. They weren’t expecting a parade. We had some parents come, but when they saw everything that was going on they went back and got their kids. Hopefully this was something that brightened their day.”

When students left campus in mid-March, the hope was that school would resume in a few weeks and that the traditional end-of-year activities could be held, Azevedo said.

But that is not how it played out.

“We didn’t get proper closure with this class. We didn’t know that they weren’t coming back. We didn’t get to have our senior walk-out rally, senior sunset, senior activities, anything,” Azevedo remarked. “The last month of the senior year is probably the best of all four years. This is a lot to handle as a kid. We just don’t want them to feel forgotten.”

Dr. Bryan Ballenger, district superintendent, said he still hopes to have a graduation ceremony on the originally scheduled June 5 date - although what form that takes remains to be seen. Ballenger said the district also hopes to hold an eighth-grade promotion program June 4 in the high school stadium.

The district is finalizing plans which must meet with the approval of the county public health department, he told Mattos Newspapers.